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Four honored at annual Salute to Women event

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The annual Salute To Women Awards held at Grand Rapids Community College is sponsored by Bob and Aleicia Woodrick to salute four women who make a difference in the community.

The awards banquet was held at GRCC Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center Banquet Room at 2 p.m., Tuesday, March 29.

The winners were Patti Trepkowski, Nikki Banks, Sarah VanSolkema, and Mary Brown.

At the announcement of alumna Banks’ award, her mother Inez Smith accepted it on her behalf.

Smith delivered a speech that had people rising to their feet, after laughing and crying at the same time.

Smith held the crowd’s attention when she called out four women  who were childhood friends to Banks, including Jennifer Smith, Educational Support Professional at GRCC to the center of the room, and praised them for their support to Banks and their own success. The audience responded with celebratory applause and a standing ovation, before it even ended.

“These young girls – I want to give out a salute to them” said Smith. “Can you imagine, as I look around the room and see these four young women, young professional women who  grew up with my girls, and they have all done well for themselves. I thank God for that.”

After announcing that Banks is her second daughter to receive the honor from Salute To Women, Smith said all her children attended GRCC and she was grateful to the college for all it has done for her family.

Although the ‘Woman of Resolution and Vitality’ was in Denver for a criminal justice meeting, and unable to receive her award personally, the winner of the GRCC Alumna Award spoke to the audience through video, thanking her parents, in addition to others.

“It is with pure joy that I say thank you to Grand Rapids Community College for this honor,” Banks said. “You should know that my sister Anika (Smith) received this same award in 2011. So for me to follow in her footsteps means I must be on the right track.”

Banks also addressed Smith.

“Because of you mom, I charge,” said Banks. “I push. I pull. I grind and I even know how to unwind. You’ve always demanded that I be the difference that makes the difference in all that I do, and you are the consummate teacher.”

Patti Trepkowski, Associate Provost, and Dean of Instructional Support said “Nikki plays a wonderful role as the Director of the Criminal Justice Department.”

Trepkowski was honored to be awarded as the “Woman of Dedication and Determination.”

“I’ve come to these programs over all these years that they’ve been doing them, and have been so impressed with the women that have gotten them before,” Trepkowski said. “It means a lot to me to get it.”

Trepkowski’s family from Bay City was present for the ceremony.

“I’m very excited and happy to have some of my family here and it’s just a very…very happy thing for me,” said Trepkowski.

Trepkowski invited some friends from her book club and talked in length about what they have done to support her in her journey.

“My friends are truly my life companions, and I deeply appreciate them,” Trepkowski said.

One of those friends, Rita Loper, was named along with others, and described Trepkowski as the most warm and caring person she knows.

“She’s always willing to ask how you’re feeling,” Loper said. “If you need help, she’s always there. So I would assume that that’s the way it is at the college too.”

Provost, and Executive Vice President of Academic & Student  Affairs at GRCC, Laurie Chesley, presented the awards to each of the women.

After speaking about Trepkowski’s accomplishments in the community, she presented Mary Brown with her award.

“Mary is being honored with the Salute To Women Former Employee Award,” announced Chesley. “Along with our own Chris Arnold, Mary recently received recognition as one of the 50 Top Most Influential Women in West Michigan, by the Grand Rapids Business Journal.”

Brown, the “Woman of Reflection and Concern,” immediately showed her humorous personality.

“Can you see me?” Brown jokingly asked the crowd, as she barely stood as tall as the podium.  “My tenure got me to thinking about grey hair. So I wanted to share with you some reflections called navigating the grey, both the literal and physical manifestations of grey.”

Brown continued to talk from an analytical standpoint about the desire for women to dye their hair to cover up their natural grey, while she said that she found her first grey hair to be “evidence of maturity.”

“What I ultimately learned, was that my wisdom would come about by exploring the grey areas of my life. Questioning, what if everything I hold dear were not true?”

Brown has earned several degrees, and is currently moving into her Doctoral Program, and Comprehensive Exam.

Brown gave a message to young girls and women looking to succeed in life.

“There are going to be times when it looks like it may be too challenging for you to make it,” Brown said. “But there’s always someone who has done something similar or done what you’re trying to do.”

The plot twist in the ceremony showed just how diverse GRCC can really be. The GRCC Student Award went to Sarah VanSolkema, who identified as transgender during his speech.

VanSolkema announced the beginning of his new transformation. He has talked about his journey through adversity and hardships in the transgender world. He even came out and announced a new name, claiming manhood publically, as Beau Lane VanSolkema.

VanSolkema explained that while he will from now on identify as a man, he will always be “Sarah” to his dad, and recently deceased mother.

“My life changed in 2012, with my first class here at GRCC,” said VanSolkema. “It was PY 097, with Nina Perko, and she said ‘you have to get out of your own way,’ in her introduction to her class. I’ve lived by those words from that moment on.”

Robby Desonia, 32, Architecture Major at GRCC, is motivated by VanSolkema’s ambition.

“Seeing her dedication and what she does and how being involved in helping others for that organization and across campus has improved the quality of life within the school and outside,” Desonia said. “It’s just really motivated me to push as hard as I can to the things I want to see. Being able to be a part of the StandOut group to help out on campus as well, has just been amazing. If I wouldn’t have had a friend like her, it would have been a lot harder.”

Kathryn Mullins, Vice president of College Advancement and Executive Director of the GRCC Foundation was an Honoree of the 2014 GRCC Employee Award.

After her speech about the importance of scholarships and donating to the GRCC Foundation, she commented after the banquet about Vansolkema.

“It’s an amazing story of human resilience, and understanding that as soon as you start focusing on you and what’s best for you, things just start to come together,” Mullins said. “Her story was inspirational to me.”

GRCC Salute to Women Awards are for an individual in each category of employee, alumni, former employee, and student. It commemorates positive role models.

Mullins had something to say about all the women who received awards.

“They’re all genuine,” said Mullins. “They all have a passion for people, in making sure that people have the ability to speak their own voice, that they’re heard, and understanding that having access to education is critical to success of our students. They do whatever they can to make sure that students reach their educational goals, and I think this is just an awesome group of women.”